Cutter's Way (Blu-ray Review)2 May, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Jeff Bridges, John Heard, Lisa Eichhorn, Ann Dusenberry.
The screen’s by now permanent blockbuster mentality was almost in full swing when Ivan Passer’s borderline masterpiece (at its very least) fell between the river-wide cracks of United Artists’ early-’80s distribution mechanism — not that a less-than-resolved mystery plot (ambiguity, anyone?) has ever been anyone’s idea of a boffo crowd-pleaser. Neither for the first nor last time, the mass audience lost, though one can sympathize if we’re talking about anyone’s initial viewing: the succulent set-up for what appears to be a conventional murder yarn set in a haves-vs.-have-nots beach town is as good as these things get.
Just after his early Oscar nomination for a left-field hit (The Last Picture Show), Jeff Bridges began starring in a trillion or so underseen cult movies from the Fat City/Bad Company get-go, with Cutter’s Way (initially titled Cutter and Bone, a la Newton Thornburg’s source novel) absolutely in their class. This said, co-star John Heard’s appropriately over-the-top turn is the film’s full force of nature, while Lisa Eichhorn’s is the greatest portrayal of broken beauty I saw in about a 10-year moviegoing span (I’d also put Ellen Burstyn in The King of Marvin Gardens in Eichhorn’s class, but the Burstyn character is something of a harridan, while Eichhorn’s is a heartbreaker).
As unlikely friends united by their tense relationships with the same woman, war-wounded Cutter (Heard) lives life too intensely while Bone (Bridges) barely lives it at all, due to his clockwork tendency to walk away from anything that gets too close. Thus, when ineptly professional boy-toy Bone stumbles into the aftermath of an outdoors murder while driving home from some sack-rolling with an upscale married blonde, he mostly punts. The crime, so gruesome that even a professional garbage collector retches at what he finds, may have been committed (on slim evidence that’ll eventually pick up a pound or two) by one of Santa Barbara’s most esteemed town father’s. Bone isn’t at all certain that this is the guy — and is smart enough to know that the latter is anything but mess-with-him material, given his silver-haired loftiness in the community. As perfectly played by Stephen Elliott with just a few fleeting strokes until the very end, this local power broker might be the screen’s most dead-on portrayal of a calcified Golden State Reagan Republican since Joseph Cotten’s classic scene in Richard Lester’s Petulia.
For a while, Bone walks away (again) from his suspicions — a passive action one can debate without necessarily calling it a bad decision. But Vietnam amputee Cutter (he also lost an eye) overreacts in an instant. Just on general principals, he wants to nail this big shot and everyone like him, and this is really what the movie is about instead of the expected (if crackling) whodunit we seem to be watching for an extended time. Czech émigré Passer and screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Fiskin consciously go for ambiguous distancing here, and the Blu-ray commentary by Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo (valuable in many ways) notes that the original novel was much more direct in removing doubts as to what happened. It also explains that unlike today, the Santa Barbara of the early ‘80s enabled a glamour city’s dirt poor to reside in very close proximity to the filthy rich, guaranteeing that the former will have their noses rubbed in the well-offs’ $15 margaritas every day of their lives.
Eichhorn’s “Mo'” character carries the monster burden of being married to Cutter, who, despite his physical condition, is a brawler and emotional tinderbox in every other regard as well. She also has some vague “history” with Bone, which may explain why he’s as much of a fixture in the couple’s hovel as members of the “Friends” crew are in each other’s apartments. The tone, though, is far from the same because miserable Mo’ is drinking herself to death, and probably not just metaphorically. This is a tragedy not just because the booze thus far has failed to kill her looks — but also because her frequent lucid moments display a head that’s truly on straight. Her chew-out of both men and the victim’s something-of-an-airhead sister (Ann Dusenberry) over their delusions is one of the best of its kind of know. Let’s also add that Dusenberry’s character is quite the unusual animal: reveling in the adventure of making the perceived killer’s life a squirmy affair instead of simply mourning a sibling whose final destiny was being dumped into a trash bin.
In the wake of the Heaven’s Gate fallout, UA launched the film as Cutter and Bone, suffered a couple bad reviews and recycled it as Cutter’s Way (just as they had with Heard’s comically sweet Chilly Scenes of Winter, from Ann Beattie’s novel, which went by Head Over Heels at one point). It didn’t work, but the movie has picked up quite a following by in-the-knows over the years; it certainly wipes the floor with On Golden Pond and Chariots of Fire, two of ’81’s best picture Oscar nominees (and Chariots even won). This is also one of the most handsome of all recent Twilight Time releases, a tribute to formidable cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, who died way too young at 61. Cronenweth was responsible for two of the most imposing visual treats of the 1980s: Blade Runner and Stop Making Sense. In its way, I think Cutter’s Way is in their class cosmetically but just isn’t as flashy about it.